Atlético Ottawa moved to within one point of the Canadian Premier League leaders Pacific FC thanks to a late goal by Zach Verhoven Sunday.
For a few minutes late on, it looked as though Atlético Ottawa were about to concede two points to Pacific despite being the better team for the second time in less than a month. Josh Heard’s equalising goal in the 83rd minute was crushingly against the run of play, and to add insult to injury, he had controlled the ball with his upper arm before poking it past Nate Ingham in the Ottawa goal. The rambunctious atmosphere in the TD Place, bouncing with 4,176 Ottawans enjoying a glorious Sunday afternoon in the sunshine, fell silent. Atlético Ottawa fans are relatively used to this feeling of hope followed by despondency and despair.
But this afternoon had been slightly different in several ways. The boys in red and white were back home after two impressive wins on the road against Edmonton and Valour. They had managed to keep Pacific, the current champions, almost entirely under control until Heard’s equaliser. The only real danger had come midway through the second half, when Alejando Diaz tapped in after a brisk counter attack, but the striker had been offside twice in the build-up.
At the other end, there had been plenty of chances for the hosts. Diego Espejo sent a free header over the bar from an Ollie Bassett corner, then Maxim Tissot’s shot from the left was cleared off the line by Thomas Meilleur-Giguère with Callum Irving well beaten. Not only were they creating chances, Atlético were holding the ball with confidence and patience, passing progressively and causing the visitors all sorts of problems.
Ballou Tabla continues to grow into this team. He’s the sort of player who gets fans on their feet every time the balls comes to him, and he magically sucks opposition defenders towards him with each probing run. A player with the passing range of Ollie Bassett can really help take advantage of the free space that Tabla-induced panic can induce in a defence. The Northern Irishman was yet again impressive today, making the play both from deep and in advanced positions. Bassett’s freedom to roam comes courtesy of the quietly outstanding Abdul Sissoko, the relatively unsung hero of this Atlético Ottawa side. Not only is he constantly reliable in anchoring the midfield, he also has taken on a leadership role on the pitch, guiding the younger players and letting them shine while he gets on with the dirty work of pressing, anticipating, intercepting and tackling.
The opening goal, when it came, showed the home side’s passing versatility: patient short passes are all well and good, but sometimes a quick long ball is what’s needed to break open a stubborn defence. Diego Espejo sent it forward to Victor Moragrega, who controlled the ball well and combined with Bassett and then Tabla on the right. The winger’s low cross left Malcolm Shaw with an easy tap-in. Shaw’s movement was outstanding: he drifted in from his left-wing position, dropping his marker Kunle Dada-Luke before ghosting into the centre-forward position that Moragrega had vacated when linking up with Bassett. After the match, Ottawa coach Carlos Gonzalez spoke generally about how the team is reaching better levels of understanding. “Players are starting to have good connections without even looking at each other, this is part of the growth of the team,” he said. With this goal, these connections were satisfyingly clear.
But connections mean nothing if heads drop when the team suffers a setback – like a controversial goal against the run of play. Gonzalez had introduced his five subs between the Ottawa opener and the Pacific equaliser, and the team’s fluidity had suffered as a result. It was one of those subs, Zach Verhoven, who ultimately made the difference. The former Pacific man was inspired: running directly, pressing aggressively and terrorising the Pacific defence from the left wing. With four minutes to play, he pounced on an Amer Didic’s failure to control a bouncing ball on the halfway line and raced clear. As Didic gave chase, Verhoven checked back inside, evaded Meilleur-Giguère’s wild lunge, played a one-two with Bassett and finished confidently under Irving. It was a stunning and well-deserved goal.
Atlético Ottawa now sit in second, one point behind Pacific with a game in hand. At almost a third of the way through the season, it’s a nice position to be in. No one is getting carried away, but as Gonzalez said, this win over the current champions “is a win that sends messages”.